28 April 2008

What I'll Miss about Japan

I've been thinking about home a lot recently, but it's become quite common for my thoughts of home to turn 180 degrees to what I'll miss about Japan once I leave. Thoughts of food usually arise at such times, and of public transportation, but today made me think of another thing I will truly miss:
Back home, I won't be famous.

It seems that, every time I leave my house, I run into at least one student. Sometimes, as I walk around the mall or grocery store, I hear a whispered "...Leslie-sensei!" from behind me. Sometimes I see them ahead and get an excited wave, or a "deer in the headlights" look, or sometimes even a "please don't see me, please don't see me" brush-off. Still, the fact that my presence elicits a response whenever I go out is very, very different for me.

Being so noticeable has its downsides, to be sure - sometimes, I don't want to be so on display. Also, it gets worse the more of us there are. 4 foreigners walking around in the mall gets us a lot of stares, and, should one of our number be anything but white, well, the level of stares is exponentially higher. Overall, though, the reactions are positive and I enjoy my little kingdom of fame.

A good example of this was two weekends ago, when we celebrated Odelia's birthday by picking fresh strawberries. The concept, which I find to be a hilarious one, runs along these lines: play a flat rate and have access to a grove of strawberries, all you can eat, for 30 minutes. (You quickly find that you can't eat all that many strawberries in one sitting.) The picking field was in my part of Ota, and along the way the group of some 10 of us saw quite a few of my students. One group of boys were playing basketball at someone's house, some passed us in cars or buses on the road, and every one of them we saw waved excitedly at us and spoke to us (when possible). Throughout the next week, I had those students come up to me at school and ask me about it. It was a lot of fun.

My position as a not-real teacher helps with this - I don't discipline the kids, I don't give out homework, and I come with a game or worksheet that won't count against their grade. I'm also different, which is (this time) perceived as a fun thing. Once I move back state-side, though, I'll lose my notoriety, and I can already tell that I'll miss my short stint with fame.

14 April 2008


AKA: Impressions of a City

Were I to write up a comprehensive entry of my four days in Kyoto, I fear I would lose the interest of my (already minimal) readership. We went to at least 16 notable places, we ate the local specialties, and I endure through some million mental images when someone asks me about the trip. Instead, I'll write some of my impressions...which will be a long enough post as it is! (If you want more specifics, comment and let me know!)

Kyoto ... felt like an old love; I loved it in a way that was not passionate or overwhelming, but instead had a very comfortable, broken-in kind of feel. It sounds odd for me to say that, as I've always felt myself to be more of a country or outer suburbs sort of girl. I love being surrounded by nature, quiet, and my own space; the idea of being comfortable in a city seems entirely out of my realm.

There were several things that made Kyoto comfortable, in my mind. To start, the city sprawls. It's huge, and there is a lot there, but it doesn't have the cramped feel of Tokyo (or New York, or Chicago's downtown, or Atlanta's downtown, or...). It also has a very well-planned public transportation system. We were mostly using buses on our visit, which is my least favorite kind of public transportation, and yet it was always so clear where we were and how we were going that I rarely, if ever, had cause to complain. I find both of these qualities really attractive in a city, especially because they are things you can't find in the suburbs/country-side. Kyoto is also breathtakingly gorgeous. Now, we were visiting at the height (arguably) of Kyoto's beauty - the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the weather was that of sunny-spring instead of rainy-spring. Still, it is wonderful to be in a city with parks, trees, and occasionally even grass (a luxury I never fully appreciated before seeing the dirt field in front of my middle school in the midst of a heavy rain).

In short, I never felt threatened by it's city-ness, nor did I ever feel that I was in an ugly place.

One of the major life lessons I'm trying to take from my time here in Japan is how and where I like to live. I've never lived on my own before, and this is pretty dagum "on my own." Kyoto taught me that I like the idea of living such that owning a car was unnecessary, or, at the very least, not an everyday necessity.

Of course, a large part of having a comfortable, long-term love is knowing your partner's faults. Kyoto was too touristy; I would always feel I was being viewed as a tourist. As Ota, especially my corner of it, is not exactly what you would call a "tourist trap," I feel like people understand that I'm here on a long-term agenda when they see me in the local store. I take a lot of comfort in that feeling. While I should probably try to adjust my neurosis in regards to how I'm viewed instead of complaining about how it limits me, I do find fault in Kyoto with this.
(...not to mention the swell of tourists come the weekend. It was strangling.)

I will tell two quick stories, as I think I'd do any post about my trip a disservice to not include them.

1. Hanami
In Japan, it's traditional to have "cherry-blossom viewing parties," or "hanami" in Japanese. While this sounds like a very spiritual thing, like a time of reflection, it is, in fact, an excuse to get wickedly drunk. We went to a pretty famous park on Thursday night in order to experience this phenomenon, and experience it we did. Maruyama Park is lit at night, so we arrived at 4 or 5 and stayed until well past dark, finally leaving at 9:30. During that time, we were "adopted" by a group of Japanese people and one foreigner, all cheifs for a local hotel. They gave us some of their extra food, which was delicious, and some of their extra alcohol. All of this was entertaining, especially because they were using their broken English and we were using our broken Japanese. They laughed at us when we said we lived in Gunma; they laughed even harder when they saw the alcohol we brought ("I guess it's ok for a foreigner..."). They labeled Aaron as a John Travolta doppelganger and, upon my asking, declared Clarissa to be Whitney Houston. Some moments were priceless, though I will say that my favorite moment was when the nicest of the bunch said, in apology for the sudden on-rush of his coworkers, "Many men...ONE gentleman." (I just about died laughing.) We were issued invitations to join them for post-hanami partying, but, as they were "likely to be sick any moment" drunk, we declined and went home instead. All in all, it was a wonderful experience and was easily one of the highlights of the trip.

2. Fushimi Inari
My favorite place in Kyoto, I can easily say, was Fushimi Inari. It's known as "the Shrine of 1,000 Tori" ("tori" are the red arches/gates often found at the entrance to a shinto shrine), though the name is somewhat of a misnomer. It should be "the Shrine of 1,000,000 Tori," and no one will convince me that there are fewer than that number there. The main shrine is at the base of a mountain, while the inner shrine resides at the top of said mountain. The path from the main shrine to the inner one is lined with tori of various sizes: the largest each standing as close to the one before it and behind it as possible, straddle the path between the shrines, while the two smaller sizes (between 1 foot and 3 feet in height) are stacked, hung, and otherwise arranged so as to enable them to be seen, but out of the way. The place is literally overflowing with these red and black arches.

It was really beautiful. There is a real sense of peace in walking along those arches, feeling them sweep over you and knowing that each arch is another knotch of time flowing past you peacefully, bringing you a little further forward in your life.

08 April 2008

Tokyo Plus

AKA: A Very Busy Time

The month of March was one without rest. To start, my friends (Caitlin, mostly) began planning day trips to various places and inviting me on said day trips, filling my weekends. It was also the end of the school year (which runs from April to April here), which brought a lot of changes in my school life, as well as a lot of End of Year activities. As if this were not enough, I also had a few visitors from the US - a friend of mine from WashU, Jeff, and his two siblings.

Most of the time I was hanging out with Jeff-tachi ("Jeff et. al") was spent in Tokyo, a place that had, during my summer orientation, earned my esteemed "Hell on Earth" ranking due to its sheer size and overcrowded feel. In short, I wasn't looking forward to spending some 7 days there.

When all was said and done, though, I had a lot of fun; Tokyo no longer freaks me out quite so much. While I couldn't tell you of every place we visited or all the things I did, as I'm ever-so-forgetful, I can tell you that my highlights were found late one night in Rippongi.

Now, Rippongi is known as the place where foreigners go to eat, drink, and party. OJ, Jeff's brother, was determined to dance and possibly find a "nice girl" that night, so we went clubbing. I wasn't sure about all of this until we got out on the floor. OJ was not to be ignored, and decided he would showcase his abilities to the eligible ladies through salsa.

Three or four times that night, OJ would cut in on my dancing with Jeff and take me to a viewable location. Then, the salsa would begin, me doing my best to not screw up and OJ doing an admirable job of not giving me the chance. He would keep his eyes open, looking to see which of the girls were watching us, and, when he found one to his fancy, he would send me back to Jeff and make his move. Should the target ever ask about the girl with whom he was dancing so recently, well, she was clearly dancing with his brother, wasn't she? The fish was on the hook before she could realize the danger.

When I wasn't dancing with OJ, I was dancing to exhaustion with Jeff. It's rare that I'm in a situation where there's not only dancing music, but a boy who's willing to dance with me all night and a complete anonymity in the crowd. I wasn't ever going to see any of these people again, nor was I likely to have the chance to dance anytime soon, so I truly let myself go. By the time Jeff and I left, which was around 3 in the morning, I had a happy exhaustion I usually associate with the end of a Cowboy Mouth concert. I was sweaty and footsore, but very content.

(An amusing sidenote: OJ didn't make it back to the hotel until 6:30 the next morning; he was having too much fun staying out on the town.)

Jeff came back to Ota with me for a week and joined me a few days at school. Unfortunately, there was only one day in which I was teaching classes - the rest of the time was filled with the elementary school graduation, the End of Year ceremony, and the start of spring break. For those two classes and his time visiting my school, though, Jeff was a total star. Everyone wanted to know who he was, why he was here, and whether he was my boyfriend (rather, most assumed and were shocked to find he isn't). Many of my male students were thrilled, greeting him three or four times in a row (and then, belatedly, greeting me). I think he won me a lot of student interest, which I hope will help refresh their interest in my classes a bit.

So it seems that the thing I needed to get over Tokyo was nothing more than spending a couple of weekends there with good company. Who knew?